An interesting place to visit in Arizona that is often overlooked by Grand Canyon tourists is the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park. This natural landmark is located in the picturesque Tonto National Forest, which covers a vast area in central Arizona. The trip to this State Park involves driving through endless miles of high elevation Ponderosa Pines and there are many camping options along the way. The small communities of Happy Jack and Strawberry are nearby, so some basic amenities are available for those who do the trip.
Upon arrival, a parking spot is easy to find at the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park and the visitor center is easy to access. The entrance gate brochure provides information about the hiking trail conditions, which visitors should become familiar with beforehand. Some of the hiking trails have steep grades that are best suited for those who are in good physical shape. There are also trail options that are best for beginners and those who have mobility challenges.
During the winter season, ice can be a problem on the hiking trails in this Arizona State Park and on the flip-side, the extreme heat of summer can cause dehydration, heat stroke or worse. The rattlesnakes, lizards and scorpions are more active when the weather is warm, while these creatures are seldom seen during the winter season. Cool air definitely makes the hiking much easier at this State Park, so early spring is the best season for visiting Tonto Natural Bridge.
On the day that I visited Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, it was mid summer and of course is was a day of record breaking extreme heat. I did the steep Gowan Hiking Trail that runs downhill to mouth of the cave under the gigantic natural bridge, which was quite an amazing trek! This area is green and lush, because a natural source of water flows under the Tonto Natural Bridge. Where there is water in the desert, there is wildlife. All sorts of interesting insects, birds and lizards that can be seen nowhere else are thriving in this solitary micro environment. Cactus, yucca and reed grass grows in this narrow canyon and there are even a few shade trees. After a short time it becomes easy to see why the Tonto Natural Bridge desert oasis environment can be compared to paradise lost!
Tonto Natural Bridge is one of many natural arches that can be found out west. What sets the Tonto Natural Bridge apart from the rest is the sheer size and scale of this gigantic solid rock arch formation. The Tonto Natural Bridge actually is the largest natural travertine bridge in the world and it is quite a majestic site to see!
Because this canyon is a heavily forested area, unobstructed views of the gigantic arch are few and far between along the Gowan Trail. The views along this trail are splendid, but it is not till one arrives at the canyon floor that entire picture comes together. When standing next to the creek in this green oasis a visitor will feel rushes of cool air, even on a day of record breaking extreme heat. The lush creek bed and the small waterfall that moistens the cave under the Tonto Natural Bridge both act as evaporative cooling systems. The swamp cooler effect noticeably drops the temperature of the canyon floor by quite a few degrees and the closer that one gets to the cave under the big arch, the cooler it gets.
As can be imagined, the cool relief from the summer heat that the Tonto Natural Bridge provides must have been quite an attraction for the natives that have always inhabited this region. In modern times, the cave under the Tonto Natural Bridge is a good choice for a family gathering spot, because of the natural cool air conditioning effect. The gigantic hollow cave is open on both sides of the arch, so any breeze that blows through can fill the canyon floor with cool air. The small waterfall that drips over the mouth of the cave adds to the dramatic effect and the monsoon season rains can make this waterfall something memorable to see.
There are wooden catwalks that go to the cave under the Tonto Natural Bridge, so the sensitive micro environment of the canyon floor is not damaged. Under the natural bridge there is plenty of shade and refreshingly cool air, so it is very easy to just sit there and enjoy the moment. In fact, the cool comfort of this gigantic arch cave is something that is difficult to break away from on a hot day, so be sure to plan on spending some extra time under the big natural bridge to soak it all up, before doing the steep climb out of the canyon.
Tonto Natural Bridge State Park certainly is an interesting place to visit, especially when the temperatures are cool, which is only a few months out of the year in central Arizona. The unique green lush micro environment oasis and the cool air conditioning effect definitely adds to the charm during the summer season, but the extreme heat is something to contend with. The Tonto Natural Bridge State Park certainly is an appealing scenic destination and doing the Gowan Trail is the best way to experience this one of a kind landmark!
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